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Why Disney’s Seven Dwarves Switch-Up Should Make Us Grumpy

Let me start off by saying what everyone knows about me: I love Disney. I worked at Walt Disney World, for God’s sake! My ultimate dream is to voice their first disabled Disney Princess. As a Disability Studies grad student, I just applied for the Diversity & Inclusion internship at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which is also my dream place to work at! But, when the live-action division of Walt Disney Studios isn’t diverse or inclusive to my fellow disabled actors, I need to throw caution in the air and risk my chances for the fellowship by writing this. Apologizes to the WDAS recruitment team in advance!

Last Monday, “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage, who is a little person with achondroplasia, shared his concern for Disney’s upcoming “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” live-action adaption. Dinklage said on the WTF with Marc Marson podcast, “You’re progressive in one way [Casting a Latina actress for its princess] but then you’re still making that…backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together.” He adds that he’s still open to the movie. “Progressive spin? Let’s do it. Yeah. All in. But I just don’t know…the dwarf community is tired of this shit.”

A day later, Disney followed up with, “To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community.” This statement made me thrilled because it sounded like Disney actually does care about the disability and dwarfism communities. However, any hope that I had with this movie dropped like a bomb when popular movie website The Wrap leaked within seconds that Disney is officially cutting the dwarves. “Disney will fill the void with a group of what they describe as ‘magical creatures,’ according to casting sheets…” the movie site reported. “They are currently looking for voice actors to give these creatures personality.” If I wasn’t caught up with a family emergency when I read the news, I would have thrown my cell phone across the room in absolute rage.

My disability is cerebral palsy, so I can’t speak for the dwarfism community. But, as a disabled actress who would love to be represented by Disney, I feel absolute pain from this. It makes it worse that Disney erased cerebral palsy from a real-life character in Christopher Robin (their 2018 live-action take on Winnie the Pooh).

Aside from anger, my other biggest feeling about Disney’s statement is confusion. “We have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community.” How in the world was the conclusion to remove the dwarves from the movie? How did the logic become, “To remove the ableism from the movie, we will remove the disability from the movie?” Who were these members of the dwarfism community who you were working with? Is Disney talking to disability organizations like Little People of America? A whole organization is much more effective than one person at a time.

It makes me truly happy that Disney is progressive with its casting in race and ethnicity. Rachel Zegler, who made a big splash into Hollywood as Maria in Spielberg’s adaption of “West Side Story,” is going to make the Latino community proud as Snow White (And need I say, Disney casting a real lyric soprano was the greatest shock in the world. Disney actually resisted celebrity casting to keep Adriana Caselotti’s legacy intact!). For the upcoming “Peter and Wendy,” newcomer Alexander Molony and Disney/ABC star Yara Shahidi — a Native New Zealander and an African American actress — are the titular hero and the Disney icon Tinker Bell. And I don’t think we need to go on about fellow Black actress and rising pop star Halle Bailey’s highly-anticipated take on the Little Mermaid herself. But diversity and inclusion aren’t just race and ethnicity. It is different disabilities and bodies, as well!

My real concern and suspicions are the possible real reason why Disney doesn’t want the dwarves in the film: Star casting. Actual disability representation will stand in the way with Tom Hanks as Doc, Lewis Black as Grumpy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Sneezy, you know? “We need to have big box office names to make money and to keep Mommy and Daddy interested,” says Hollywood. Was Disney’s conversation with the dwarfism community actually about casting big names as dwarves? If Disney has to cast voice-over actors for the dwarfs or “magical creatures,” that’s a big red flag. I’m praying that Disney is seeing little people for these “voiceover” roles to make up for it.

Don’t get me wrong: If these “magical creatures” are what the dwarfism community wants, then we need to support this decision. Dinklage’s opinion is absolutely not wrong and not out of nowhere either. The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is controversial to the dwarfism community, due to problematic stereotypes and bullying. Scholars Erin Pritchard and Robert Kruse write, “A person with dwarfism is rarely represented as an ordinary human being, but rather a mischievous being — happy to be ridiculed and laughed at rather than with.” It should be noted that the general response of Twitter to Dinklage’s comments was comparisons to Grumpy. Disability advocate Rebecca Cokley tweeted on her life experiences in bullying, “…You HAVEN’T lived until you leave your office to frat boys drunkenly imitating your walk at a bar as you walk by, chanting ‘Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho!’”

Despite this, the reactions that I have seen on this movie from the dwarfism community are generally either cast little people in the movie as the Dwarfs and have them come to the writer’s room, or do not do this movie if you’re not going to get proper consultation.  Actress Kiruna Stamell agrees with Dinklage’s opinion, but still pitches, “The seven dwarfs could live in a house that is only accessible to people 4ft 2in tall. With an adapted kitchen and adapted vehicles. So, all the average height people in their world are forced to bend over for 40% of the film, sit in little chairs and stoop to use the stove…and the perils of bad ergonomic design are really and truly explored.”

Comedian Brad Williams adds, “Make Snow White end up with one of the dwarfs, how about that? I mean, they have jobs, you know? They got good friends. They got a house. They like to protect her. They’re diamond miners, so they’re rich. They’re self-made, wealthy…come on, how about you end up with the dwarfs, and you have a progressive Snow White, and everybody’s happy.”

As a past consultant myself, these are the responses that I expect from my peers, not the suggestions to take away acting opportunities from their peers.  Additionally, while talking about the new creatures with me, Cokley remarked, “By removing the dwarves, Disney is absolving itself of doing any actual learning or making things better. The opportunity to apologize, build developed characters of substance informed by the community, and demonstrate actual leadership in Hollywood is how justice actually happens. The dwarfism community is done being grateful for being patted on the head.”

On a brighter note, there is one victory in the disability-casting progress: One of “Peter and Wendy’s Lost Boys,” Noah Matthews Matofsky, has Down syndrome! It is going to be spectacular to watch people with Down syndrome see themselves in a Disney movie. It is frustrating to see while Disney is taking one step forward with Noah and Peter Pan, they’re planning on taking seven giant steps back with Snow White.

Special thanks to Rebecca Cokley, Stephanie Farfan, Nicole D’Angelo, Keely Cat-Wells, Marissa Erickson, and Matthew Josephs.

Getty image by ratpack223.

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